IFRC Digital Transformation Virtual Dialogues 

Whatis it about?  

A Virtual dialogue about Digital Transformation at the IFRC was held with National Society (NS) leaders on 15 and 16 September 2020. The Digital Transformation Strategy builds forth on the IFRC’s Strategy 2030 

Digital transformation is prioritized as one of the seven transformations that the RCRC must embrace for the next decade. Strategy 2030 emphasizes that digital technology can drive greater impact and efficiency in delivering humanitarian aid, and recognizes it is accompanied by certain risks that need to be attended to. Subsequently, a Digital Pledge was signed by several members of the Network, including 510, who committed themselves to strengthen national data and digital capacities for humanitarian action. 

Over the course of the summer of 2020, the IFRC Secretariat together with National Societies and private sector partners embarked on a 12-week consultation to give shape to a Digital Transformation Strategy. On September 15 and 16, leaders from  75 National Societies logged in from all regions to participate in Virtual Dialogues in Languages.

The virtual dialogues aimed at engaging the global leaders in a consultation to give shape to IFRC’s digital strategy. The leaders shared and compared their insights and experiences on Data and Digital Technology within their National Society.  

Whyis it needed? 

The dialogue created opportunity for great discussions on the benefits of data and digital technology, and the different drivers of change that will shape the journey towards digital transformation. The involvement of different National Societies in this conversation was both necessary and appreciated, as comparing what has worked well and what might ultimately not be feasible helps in forming the data and digital strategy. For instance, several of the participating National Societies mentioned that what worked for them was utilising systems and dashboards for data tracking, as well as developing new methodologies and platforms that improved their daily work. However, some global leaders expressed that there was a limit on the resources readily available for data collection. For example, Glauco Quesada , president of the Costa Rica Red Cross, voiced the “need for larger capacity to collect and protect data”  while others shared how their network of volunteers grew and explained how it has affected and improved their work.  

Figure 1: Opportunities of Digital Transformation in Humanitarian Assistance 


Additionally, there was a consensus among the National Societies that acquiring the technical capacities and having them available at central level is not the only issue, but there is also concern that for example volunteers on the ground might not have access to the appropriate technology or even internet. The IFRC and its 192 National Societies are constantly working in different geographical regions and using the same tools in both urban and rural areas, let alone in different countries. It is sometimes impossible to use the same tools for the different jobs, which is why it has been suggested through the discussions that it crucial to know which tool is adaptable and preferred in its appropriate setting.  


The participants were well aware of the importance of digital transformation and were keen on working towards this shift, yet the digital divide among the National Societies had been a challenge in their transformation. The virtual dialogue presented a platform to address the digital divide faced by the participating leaders and welcomed discussions on methods and practices of integrating more technology into the workstreams. 2020 has challenged the world and the workforce into becoming more creative and tech-savvy for the sake of maintaining a “normal” work dynamic, and considering digital transformation for operations, small or big, is becoming more of a need and a necessity for the future. The digital maturity model1 was presented as a self-assessment tool for national societies to identify where they currently are digitally, and where they aspire to be. The model helps kickstarting internal and external discussions on how that goal can be achieved, and will pave the way for a digital shift that fits the respective situation of each national society. 


Figure 2: The steps of the Digital Maturity model 


What are the results?  

As the floor for discussion opened, a consensus was present around the notion that data and digital are an integral part of the work of the futureand a cumulative effort on integrating data and digital into the main working environment is essential. Xavier Castellanos, regional director for Asia Specific at IFRC, highlighted that “COVID19 has streamlined the digital transformation process” 


The virtual dialogue became the centre for documenting the various uses of data among the participating National Societies that gives perspective on the importance of data and digital in different settings and its multifaceted usages. Moreover, it allows everyone involved to take a step back and really see what technology they are working with. That way, it can be ensured that it is reflected upon whether viable and realistic solutions are utilised. Having these discussions with diverse group of members also opened the floor to share challenges and concerns that are being faced by many. One key point that was addressed was the benefits of not only working with private sector partners, but also building national and local partnerships 


Figure 3Screenshot of how NS voted on challenges in Digital Transformation 


Another concern brought up was the data protection regulations when working with private sector partners. As a person coming from an academic background, I found that point particularly interesting due to experience working with data in an academic setting and the tedious work that goes into getting projects ethically reviewed and approved. Not only is it important to collect data, but it is crucial, in my opinion, to have the right tools and technology to do so while making sure that there are policies in place that protect the information that was gathered. 


How did we work together?  

The Digital Transformation virtual dialogue was organised by IFRC together with 510 and the Netherlands Red Cross. The team was led by members working on the digital strategy, but also opened the floor for volunteer involvement.  


I started volunteering with 510 mid-September to get a better understanding of the different organisations working in humanitarian aid, as I transition from working in the global health field to a more humanitarian sector. My knowledge on RCRC was limited to my previous work as a researcher at the Global Health Institute working on projects that involved contacts at both the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) and the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC)I was introduced to RCRC’s work on data responsibility and was intrigued by the different ways of handling data in humanitarian contexts compared to that of an academic one, but also on how much RCRC is fighting to transform their global workstreams to include more digital technology. 


 As a volunteer, not only was I able to listen to the wide range of discussions and presentations held at the digital transformation virtual dialogue, but I was able to be a part of the organising team that was extremely detailed in the logistics of the event and welcomed the feedback and comments that I and the other volunteers had. I was really impressed by the collaborations and conversations that were brought up by the participants involved in this dialogue. This platform allowed me to learn about the backgrounds and experiences of the global leaders with their digital transformation efforts and it paved the way for others to share their thoughts on the topic. 


Listening to the wide range of experiences and points of views that were presented and that came up in the conversations made me think of how well this dialogue will realistically translate in the sector. Coming from a mainly academic background, it was interesting to see the different implementation styles and uses of data and technology in the humanitarian sector. In academia, the luxury of funded research provides teams with a wide timeframe that allows them to prepare and gather resources, both human and digital, that will play a part in their work. In the humanitarian sector, especially when a crisis is present, time to prepare is not as abundant, and on the ground work starts immediately as every minute counts. This is where I feel there is a huge need for digital integration as it will save time on processing the data. Moreover, human resources are sometimes limited when working with humanitarian organisations but the RCRC provides a vast global network of volunteers that can be reached as opposed to hiring full-time employees to work on academic research projects. The constraints and challenges faced by those two sectors were a lot of the times similar, but as mentioned there are sometimes more perks of being in the academic sector. Mainly, academia is fortunate to acquire both time and money/funding, that are more scarce in the humanitarian sector, even though the former is rarely working in life or death situations whereas the majority of humanitarian work is directly correlated with saving and/or improving the lives of communities. 


Furthermore, a component that was mentioned numerously in the sessions was how the culture of the organisations needed to change as a whole towards digital data. This is something that I feel has started since the beginning of 2020 due to the restrictions we faced due to COVID-19 and has been a topic of conversation for the past months. A shift has already been taking place in different organisational structures and it seems that it is only a matter of time that some form of digital transformation can be standardised to work in very distinctive settings.  

What’s next? 

Digital transformation is not something that will happen overnight. As Xavier Castellanos emphasized, it is a component that requires a lot of attention and a lot of learningThe meetings and conversations that took place will aid in better defining the different actions that need to be taken within the digital transformation strategy that is being developedIn October, there will be a formal process to communicate the strategy document as part of the process that leads to the IFRC governing board meeting in November.

Written by Melissa El Hamouch 

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